Whether you hit whitetail pay dirt, or are still looking for your first wall-hanger, spending some time investigating where some of the better Tennessee white-tailed bucks were killed last season is a good way to start the process.
From a statistical standpoint, killing a buck with seven or more points was much harder last season. Only 24 counties saw an increase in the number of bucks with seven or more points in 2010. My own experience has closely followed last year's trend, even though I killed a 5 1/2-year-old buck in 2009 and a 4 1/2-year-old buck last year. Last season, I killed a 6-pointer that had four points on one side and two on the other. Two seasons back, I killed a monster buck with five points on one side that had 70 inches of bone, but the other side was a fat, 10-inch spike. Seems like I have created a habit of killing funky 6-pointers that I hope to turn around next season. Don't get the impression that I regret killing these bucks, it was a thrill and they both fit my ideal of killing mature deer.
I began deer hunting in Tennessee in 1981 when I was a college freshman at Freed-Hardeman University in Chester County. When I started hunting the Volunteer State, only about 35,000 deer were killed in a season. That's far short of today's harvest, and just killing a deer, buck or doe, made for a successful season.
Now that I have 30 seasons under my belt and more stuff hanging on the wall than my wife cares for, I've got a fair idea of what I'm looking for when I start my research for the next season. I have hunted here long enough, and from the Mississippi River bottoms to the Appalachian Trail, so forming a personal opinion of what "my" trophy buck looks like is pretty easy. I set my "trophy" goal for a buck for a 3 1/2-year-old or better. When a buck reaches an age where he is coming into his fourth hunting season, he's a tough challenge, is nearing his maximum potential for antler and body growth.
These days finding a buck that age anywhere in the state is a reasonable expectation. If the buck is 4 ½, 5 ½, older, or his rack scores enough to qualify for the Tennessee Deer Registry, then that's just icing on the cake. Of the bucks killed statewide last season, about 15 & were 3 1/2 years old. On the other hand, it's a 1-in-a-100 shot to kill a 5 1/2-years-old buck. Put another way, a good deer hunter could spend a couple of lifetimes killing deer in this state and never shoot a 5 1/2-year-old buck.
Since fewer bucks are weighed and aged currently by Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency biologists over the past few seasons when compared to several years ago, the sample size of aged deer isn't high enough to look at biological data and determine where the oldest buck are being killed. Even though the number of points on a buck's rack doesn't determine age, it is a fair indicator of what's being killed in a county. Only a small percentage of yearling bucks sport 7- or 8-point racks.
And, there's a reason that some of the premier "trophy" WMAs, such as Presidents Island, have a minimum standard of the number of points on a buck's rack that are eligible for harvest. When a buck sports 9 or 10 points, he's a mature deer.
A couple of years ago, this feature focused on the number of bucks killed in each county in relationship to the county's total acreage. This is a good set of data to study, but just one piece of the whitetail puzzle. Another barometer of upcoming harvest is the quality of the mast crop last fall, as well as the predicted mast crop in the coming season. This information is available from the TWRA in September each year.
Ben Layton, the big game biologist for Region 3, had some interesting insight on mast crops and deer.
"Generally, in a deer season following a good acorn crop from the previous fall you will see an increase in deer body weights and in antler size," Layton said. "For this coming deer season, this should be the case on the upper Cumberland Plateau.
"It is too early to predict the acorn crop for this fall, but if a poor to mediocre acorn crop occurs, you should expect to see increased deer movement as deer search out other areas for food sources. These factors could relate to better chances for a hunter to encounter trophy bucks.
"If a good to excellent acorn crop occurs this fall, hunters, particularly those hunters that hunt fields, will likely again not see numbers of deer that they are used to seeing," he continued. "The positive to having two good acorn crops in a row would be that deer could again make it into the following hunting season in great condition and there may be a few more bucks that survive and make into an older age class, making the next hunting season a good one."
The number of quality bucks killed in the Tennessee is still trending upward over the long term, but last season's harvest was down significantly. Statewide, the number of bucks killed with 7 or more points dropped 7.7 percent. Seven- and 8-point bucks harvested were down 8.3 percent. The 9- and 10-point buck harvest was down 6.4 percent, while the number of 11-pointers and up were down two.
Last season, only 22 counties out of 95 had increases in the harvest of 7- and 8-point bucks. That compares to 73 counties in the plus column two years ago. The number of 9- and 10-pointers harvested statewide increased or stayed the same in 77 counties two years ago, but only 32 counties improved from 2009 harvest numbers. The number of counties reporting bucks with 11 points or more saw increases in 56 counties two years ago, but last season 48 counties improved or remained level for bucks in this class.
Region I, with 25 counties, saw an increase in 7- and 8-point bucks in only four counties, which was down again from the previous season. In the 9- and 10-point class, Region I had increases in eight counties, which was down from 2009.
The number of 11-points-or-greater rose or stayed level in 13 counties, which was the same as the previous year. McNairy, Weakley, Dyer, Gibson, Obion and Madison counties should be studied, since the number of bucks with 11 points or more jumped significantly last season.
Region II also has 25 counties, and saw an increase in 7- and 8-point bucks in seven counties, which was down significantly from the previous season. In the 9- and 10-point class, Region II had increases in seven counties, down from 2009. The number of 11-points-or-greater rose or stayed level in 15 counties. Dickson, Franklin and Bedford counties should be carefully considered for trophy producers, owing to their significant improvements and the number of bucks killed with 11 points or more.
Region III, with 24 counties, saw an increase in 7- and 8-point bucks in seven counties, which was down from the previous season. In the 9- and 10-point class, Region III had increases or stayed level in 12 counties. The number of 11-points-or-greater rose or stayed level in 10 counties.
Roane County was a hotbed for killing bucks with 11 points or more last season, but their other categories of buck-kills were down. This may be a good reflection of what bucks survived last season and will be walking the woods this season.
Region IV, with 21 counties, saw an increase in 7- and 8-point bucks in three counties, which was dramatically down from the previous season. In the 9- and 10-point class, Region IV had increases in five counties. The number of 11-points-or-greater rose or stayed level in nine counties.
PUBLIC LAND BUCKS
Deer hunters at WMAs experienced a 1 percent decrease in total harvest numbers for bucks with 7 points or more last season. A total of 1,250 bucks with racks sporting 7 points or more were killed. The number of bucks with 7 or 8 points saw a 1 percent decline. There was a major 6- percent drop in the number of bucks taken sporting 9 or 10 points. And, bucks with 11 points or more saw a 1 percent increase.
For comparison's sake, the number of bucks killed on Fort Campbell was not included in these totals, owing to not having harvest data available at the time this story was written.
Overall, 26 managed areas saw an increase in harvest of quality bucks, which was the same number of WMAs on the rise last year when compared to 2008 harvests. The number of 7- or 8-point bucks harvested rose on 26 areas. The WMA bucks with 9 or 10 points harvested rose on 20 areas. Ninteen WMAs had an increase in the number of buck with 11 or more points harvested.
In 2010, Catoosa dropped from the top spot with 149 quality bucks killed, down from the previous year's 177. The first place finish went to Land Between the Lakes, with 177 quality bucks harvested. North and South Cherokee WMAs combined to produce 150 quality bucks with 7 points or more.
The LBL tract ranked first among managed areas for the harvest of bucks with 7 or 8 points, with a total of 105. Catoosa followed with 104, and North and South Cherokee combined to produce 113. Oak Ridge followed with 43 in this class.
In the 9- or 10-point category, LBL reigned supreme with 61 taken. Catoosa wasn't far behind with 39 bucks in this class.
In the 11-point or greater category, LBL also finished first with 11 bucks taken. That's a significant number, owing to the fact that only 51 bucks were taken on public areas statewide in this class.
Big bucks are where you find them, and the numbers of bucks taken with 11 or more points on small WMAs proves that these are areas that deserve special attention. They may only produce one buck of this caliber, but those do exist, as statistics indicate. Spend some time scouting your favorite WMA and you may tag a trophy buck, too.
TENNESSEE DEER REGISTRY
Many Tennessee Sportsman readers are familiar with the Tennessee Deer Registry. It is the statewide scoring and ranking of bucks using the Boone and Crockett Club's scoring methods.
A typical buck must score 140 if taken with a gun to qualify. A typical bow-killed buck must score a minimum of 115. Non-typicals killed with a bow or gun must score a minimum of 145 or 165, respectively to qualify. Recently, muzzleloader bucks were added as a category, with a typical minimum score of 120 and a 140 non-typical qualifying for entry.
Using the TDR as a method to focus your hunting attention is just as good, or faulty, as relying on what was killed last season to gauge where to hunt next season. But, it does lead to some interesting conclusions with some judicious study.
When the Tennessee Conservation League started the TDR back in the 1970s the record-keeping and scoring trudged along. Harvests were still low, and not many big bucks were killed or scored. Then, in the 1980s, things picked up to the point where the league asked the TWRA to step in to manage and maintain the records and scoring. By then, harvest numbers were climbing and the number of bruiser bucks killed was keeping the same pace. Currently, there have been 2,377 bucks qualified for entry.
One way to treat the TDR data is to lump all of the archery, gun and muzzleloader bucks scored. Then, let's look at the past three decades to compare where Tennessee's trophy bucks called home. From 1989 and earlier there are 796 bucks listed in the TDR.
Between 1990 and 1999, a total of 771 bucks are listed. Since 2000, 718 bucks have been scored and entered into the TDR. This data isn't perfect, owing to about 30 records that have in correct or incomplete data. Also, some counties are larger than others. Still it's good for a comparison.
Over the past 10 seasons, there has been a dramatic shift in where trophy bucks have been killed. As of last year, the ranking for the top five counties producing bucks that qualify for the TDR is Williamson, Fayette, Cumberland, Davidson and Montgomery.
Many of these counties correspond with top buck producers according to harvest figures. It points out that more counties are capable of producing top-end bucks, though. Take for instance Davidson and Haywood counties. Both have produced state record non-typicals, but neither shows up if only harvest figures are considered. Yet, Haywood County has really come on strong over the past few years, if you look at the relative number of bucks that qualify for B&C's all-time record book, too.